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Digital Death - Have A Smart Phone Policy

Digital Death - Have A Smart Phone Policy

7 Jul 2019


I spent a decade working on the bereavement team at a telecommunications company. All the big ones have them. When people die or they're informed they're terminally ill then contracts need to be cancelled.

It's a pretty simple process. When someone died we needed a copy of the death certificate. Terminal illness; a hospital letter.

As anyone who has worked in a call centre can testify, we heard it all. There was the 100 year-old man who died leaving two 30-something fiancées. Both ladies called to alert us of his death. We said nothing.

Then there was the struggling company owner who said all his employees had died in a plane crash, thus their mobile contracts needed cancelled. Some swift digging and there had been no such thing - the desperate guy's finances were circling the drain and he needed an out.

There were funnies and there was ridiculousness. I recently calculated that probably 1% of my calls were fakes or frauds or people trying to get their own back on a cheating partner.

For years our death process followed a simple formula, the same as alerting a utilities, bank or subscription service. However, not every industry saw the swift and rapid evolution ours did and there was a sudden change around 2010. 

In other words, the smartphone changed everything.

If you think about it, smartphones are like the skeleton key to a person's life. In certain circumstances, loved-ones will instinctively look to a deceased person's smartphone for answers or content or media or … well, just to snoop. 

In all the apps, photos, messages, content, social media - think about what you’ve got going on in your phone. It's a very clear window into your life. 

As smartphones have evolved and taken a central role in our lives, so have the rules and regulations around access. Over time it has become more difficult – and more ethically questionable – for someone, anyone to break into a smartphone. And even although data protection doesn't necessarily cover the dead, it's a bit of a grey area. Actually, it's a huge can of worms.

For that reason, we never told callers with any specificity how they could reset passcodes or pins to access a deceased person's phone. But we understood the sensitivity so offered general advice. In some cases we signposted callers to where they could access unlock instructions.

Nothing they wouldn't have found with a quick Google search.

Nonetheless it was all a bit ambiguous. Don't know about you, but even in death I'm not sure I'd want my friends, siblings or parents sifting through the contents of my digital cupboards; through messages and photos not meant for their eyes. I’d sooner entrust the vital stuff to one person with fairly explicit instructions.

We dealt with the tragic story of a dad who lost his son to suicide. He naturally wanted answers to his son's life and mental state so the phone was a logical place to look. We gave him the same general instructions to gain access but that didn’t help. He got in and it caused even more pain. The dad called us back regularly trying to grab any additional info: who does this number belong to? Or who is this Naomi he's talking to? 

I really felt for the guy, he was frantically searching for clues and answers and using whatever info he had to fill in the blanks of a heartbreaking situation.

If you think about it, even 15 years ago the mobile phone wasn't a big part of a person's life. Upon death, it was just another incidental on the long-list of things to clear up. Today, things have changed. 

This LifeSearch campaign about Digital Death is so important. Instructing friends or family what is to happen to your smartphone's contents upon death is essential. It makes your wishes clear and leaves potentially sensitive content in the hands of someone you trust and, more importantly, away from those who won't correctly interpret or understand what they’re looking at. Let’s face it, in the wrong hands some of our daily comms might be unfathomably hurtful and damaging.

Elsewhere in this campaign we're urging people to issue specific instructions for their digital lives. In doing so, you might want to specify what's to happen to your photos … and yes, maybe have a think about loading those photos into a folder destined for DELETE. 

To do so, read through our guides on how to make your digital death wishes clear. Your phone’s a gateway to social media land so by assigning ownership and instructions to each, you’re telling friends and family who will and won’t have a right to look. 

The contents of the phone itself? Again, assign ownership to a trusted person to ensure all the important folders and media can be distributed and shared appropriately. WhatsApp? Delete. 

In fact, if in doubt I say rip and rid: have what matters sent to people who count … then DELETE TO FACTORY SETTINGS. 

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